Chariot races and games at Constantinople's Hippodrome were the center of social and political life in the city.
"Bread and circuses,”the poet Juvenal wrote scathingly. “That’s all the common people want.”
Food and entertainment. Or to put it another way, basic sustenance and bloodshed, because the most popular entertainments offered by the circuses of Rome were the gladiators and chariot racing, the latter often as deadly as the former.
As many as 12 four-horse teams raced one another seven times around the confines of the greatest arenas—the Circus Maximus in Rome was 2,000 feet long, but its track was not more than 150 feet wide—and rules were few, collisions all but inevitable, and hideous injuries to the charioteers extremely commonplace. Ancient inscriptions frequently record the deaths of famous racers in their early 20s, crushed against the stone spina that ran down the center of the race track or dragged behind their horses after their chariots were smashed.
Charioteers, who generally started out as slaves, took these risks because there were fortunes to be won. Successful racers who survived could grow enormously wealthy—another Roman poet, Martial, grumbled in the first century A.D. that it was possible to make as much as 15 bags of gold for winning a single race.
Diocles, the most successful charioteer of them all, earned an estimated 36 million sesterces in the course of his glittering career, a sum sufficient to feed the whole city of Rome for a year. Spectators, too, wagered and won substantial sums, enough for the races to be plagued by all manner of dirty tricks; there is evidence that the fans sometimes hurled nail-studded curse tablets onto the track in an attempt to disable their rivals.
In the days of the Roman republic, the races featured four color-themed teams, the Reds, the Whites, the Greens and the Blues, each of which attracted fanatical support. By the sixth century A.D., after the western half of the empire fell, only two of these survived—the Greens had incorporated the Reds, and the Whites had been absorbed into the Blues. But the two remaining teams were wildly popular in the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire, which had its capital at Constantinople, and their supporters were as passionate as ever—so much so that they were frequently responsible for bloody riots.
Exactly what the Blues and the Greens stood for remains a matter of dispute among historians. For a long time it was thought that the two groups gradually evolved into what were essentially early political parties, the Blues representing the ruling classes and standing for religious orthodoxy, and the Greens being the party of the people. The Greens were also depicted as proponents of the highly divisive theology of Monophysitism, an influential heresy which held that Christ was not simultaneously divine and human but had only a single nature. (In the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., it threatened to tear the Byzantine Empire apart.)
After about 500 the rivalry between the Greens and the Blues escalated and spread well outside Constantinople’s chariot racing track, the Hippodrome–a slightly smaller version of the Circus Maximus whose central importance to the capital is illustrated by its position directly adjacent to the main imperial palace. (Byzantine emperors had their own entrance to the arena, a passageway that led directly from the palace to their private box.) This friction came to a head during the reign of Justinian (c. 482-565), one of Byzantium’s greatest but most controversial emperors.
The Bloody Riots of the Empire
The races held in cities around the Empire sometimes became a focal point for religion and politics as well as simplefootball hooliganism. In 501, for example, the Greens ambushed the Blues in Constantinople’samphitheater and massacred 3,000 of them. Four years later, in Antioch, there was a riot caused by the triumph of a Green charioteer who had defectedfrom the Blues.
In 507 AD a factionled an attack on the Jewish synagogue in Antioch. "They set fire to it, plundered everything that was in the synagogue and massacred many people," setting up a cross there and turning the site into a martyrium. One faction leader helped rally support for the Emperor Anastasius during the revolt of Vitalian in AD 515 (cf. Epigram 350, where the emperor, "with the Greens to assist him, warred with the furiously raging enemy of the throne"). In appreciation, Anastasius, who, himself, favored the Reds, restored the privileges of the Greens.
The great weakness in the Empire was the decline of the different Roman assemblies so the people had no way of peacefully changing their government. By the time of Justinian the eastern Senate had become a rubber stamp institution with little power. The Emperor of the moment could trample on the rights of the people at will.
We see in Procopius' Secret History a true account of themassive corruption, insane spending, lawlessness, attacks on religious minorities and the savage dictatorship of the royal family.
All of the above helped set off the riots. But these two threads—the fast-growing importance of the circus factions and the ever-increasing burden of taxation—combined in 532 to spark the flame. By this time, John of Cappadocia had been appointed Praetorian Prefect of the East, he had introduced no fewer than 26 new taxes, many of which fell, for the first time, on Rome’s wealthiest citizens.
This discontent sent shock waves through the imperial city, which were only magnified when Justinian reacted harshly to an outbreak of fighting between the Greens and the Blues at the races of January 10. Sensing the disorder had the potential to spread, and eschewing his allegiance to the Blues, the emperor sent in his troops. Seven of the ringleaders in the rioting were condemned to death.
But on January 10, 532, two of them, a Blue and a Green, escaped and were taking refuge in the sanctuary of a church surrounded by an angry mob. The Blues and the Greens responded by demanding that the two men be pardoned entirely.
Adding fuel to this tinder box was Justinian's policy to try and make his power completely independent of the Senate and the Imperial Council. That caused deep animosity in the senatorial class, and the disaffected senators seized the opportunity to direct the rising against the throne.
The plan was to set on the throne one of the nephews of the former Emperor Anastasius - either Pompeius or Hypatius.
On January 13, 532, a tense and angry populace arrived at the Hippodrome for the races. The Hippodrome was next to the palace complex, and thus Justinian could watch from the safety of his box in the palace and preside over the races.
From the start, the crowd had been hurling insults at Justinian. By the end of the day, at race 22, the partisan chants had changed from "Blue" or "Green" to a unified Nίκα ("Nika", meaning "Win!" "Victory!" or "Conquer!"), and the crowds broke out and began to assault the palace. For the next five days, the palace was under siege. The fires that started during the tumult resulted in the destruction of much of the city, including the city's foremost church, the Hagia Sophia.
Flavius Belisarius (c. 500 – 565) He was instrumental in the reconquest of much of the Mediterranean territory belonging to the former Western Roman Empire, which had been lost less than a century prior.
A map of the palace quarter, with the
Hippodrome and the Hagia Sophia
The city was burning and the Imperial Palace under siege.
It was assuredly high time for the Emperor to employ military force to restore order. But Justinian's hold on power was so weak that the Palace guards, the Scholarians and Excubitors, were unwilling to do anything to defend the throne. They had no feeling of personal devotion to Justinian, and they decided to do nothing and await events.
Fortunately for Justinian there happened to be troops of a more irregular kind in the city, and two loyal and experienced commanders. Belisarius, who as Master of Soldiers in the East had been conducting the war against Persia, had recently been recalled, and he had in his service a considerable body of armed retainers, chiefly of Gothic race. Mundus, a general who had done good service in the defense of the Danube, was also in the capital with a force of Heruls. But all the soldiers on whom the Emperor could count can hardly have reached the number of 1500.
It was perhaps on Thursday (January 15) that Belisarius rode forth at the head of Goths and Heruls to suppress the revolution. There was a battle, possibly in the Augusteum; many were killed; but the soldiers were too few to win a decisive victory, and the attack only exasperated the people.
During the two following days there was desultory street fighting, and another series of conflagrations. On Friday the mob again set fire to the Praetorium, which had only been partly damaged, and also set fire to the baths of Alexander.
The people thronged to the house of Hypatius, and in spite of his own reluctance and the entreaties of his wife Maria, who cried that he was being taken to his death, carried him to the Forum of Constantine, where he was crowned with a golden chain wreathed like a diadem.
Justinian sent out a trusted eunuch, named Narses, to the Hippodrome with a well-filled purse to sow dissensions and attempt to detach the Blue faction from the rebellion. He could insinuate that Hypatius, like his uncle, would be sure to protect their rivals the Greens, and remind them of the favor which Justinian had shown them in time past and of the unwavering goodwill of Theodora.
While Narses fulfilled this mission, Belisarius and Mundus prepared to attack.
Belisarius drew his sword and gave the word to charge the crowd. Though many of the populace had arms, there was no room in the dense throng to attempt an orderly resistance, and confronted by the band of disciplined soldiers the mob was intimidated and gave way. Moreover there were dissensions among them, for the bribes of Narses had not been fruitless.
They were cut down without mercy, and then Mundus appeared with his Heruls to help Belisarius in the work of slaughter. Mundus had left the Palace by another way, and he now entered the Hippodrome by a gate known as Nekra. The insurgents were between two fires, and there was a great carnage.
It was said that the number of the slain exceeded 30,000.
Two nephews of Justinian, Boraides and Justus, then entered the Kathisma without meeting resistance. They seized Hypatius, who had witnessed the battle from his throne, and secured Pompeius, who was with him. The brothers were taken into the Palace, and, notwithstanding the tears of Pompeius and the pleadings of Hypatius that he had acted under compulsion, they were executed on the following day and their bodies were cast into the sea.
This gave the Emperor the opportunity of taking vigorous measures to break down the opposition of the senatorial nobles to his autocracy. There were no more executions, but eighteen senators who had taken a leading part in the conspiracy were punished by the confiscation of their property and banishment.
At a later time, when he felt quite secure, Justinian pardoned them and restored to them any of their possessions which he had not already bestowed on others, and a similar restitution was even made to the children of Hypatius and Pompeius.
The list of people angry with Justinian was very long. Only through the mass slaughter of his own people could he hold on to power.
The Historian Procopius wrote in his Secret History: "Of the plundering of property or the murder of men, no weariness ever overtook him. As soon as he had looted all the houses of the wealthy, he looked around for others; meanwhile throwing away the spoils of his previous robberies in subsidies to barbarians or senseless building extravagances. And when he had ruined perhaps myriads in this mad looting, he immediately sat down to plan how he could do likewise to others in even greater number."
Accompanying the Roman general Belisarius in Emperor Justinian's wars, Procopius became the principal Roman historian of the 6th century, writing the History of the Wars, the Buildings, and the Secret History. He is commonly classified as the last major historian of the ancient Western world.
By Procopius of Caesarea 500 - 554 AD The History of the Wars, Book One
At this same time an insurrection broke out unexpectedly in Byzantium among the populace, and, contrary to expectation, it proved to be a very serious affair, and ended in great harm to the people and to the senate, as the following account will shew.
In every city the population has been divided for a long time past into the Blue and the Green factions; but within comparatively recent times it has come about that, for the sake of these names and the seats which the rival factions occupy in watching the games, they spend their money and abandon their bodies to the most cruel tortures, and even do not think it unworthy to die a most shameful death. And they fight against their opponents knowing not for what end they imperil themselves, but knowing well that, even if they overcome their enemy in the fight, the conclusion of the matter for them will be to be carried off straightway to the prison, and finally, after suffering extreme torture, to be destroyed.
So there grows up in them against their fellow men a hostility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or disappear, for it gives place neither to the ties of marriage nor of relationship nor of friendship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with respect to these colours be brothers or any other kin.
They care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitution are violated by friend or by foe; nay even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering unjustly, they pay no heed if only it is likely to go well with their "faction"; for so they name the bands of partisans. And even women join with them in this unholy strife, and they not only follow the men, but even resist them if opportunity offers, although they neither go to the public exhibitions at all, nor are they impelled by any other cause; so that I, for my part, am unable to call this anything except a disease of the soul. This, then, is pretty well how matters stand among the people of each and every city.
But at this time the officers of the city administration in Byzantium were leading away to death some of the rioters. But the members of the two factions, conspiring together and declaring a truce with each other, seized the prisoners and then straightway entered the prison and released all those who were in confinement there, whether they had been condemned on a charge of stirring up sedition, or for any other unlawful act. And all the attendants in the service of the city government were killed indiscriminately; meanwhile, all of the citizens who were sane-minded were fleeing to the opposite mainland, and fire was applied to the city as if it had fallen under the hand of an enemy.
The sanctuary of Sophia and the baths of Zeuxippus, and the portion of the imperial residence from the propylaea as far as the so-called House of Ares were destroyed by fire, and besides these both the great colonnades which extended as far as the market place which bears the name of Constantine, in addition to many houses of wealthy men and a vast amount of treasure. During this time the emperor and his consort with a few members of the senate shut themselves up in the palace and remained quietly there. Now the watch-word which the populace passed around to one another was Nika, and the insurrection has been called by this name up to the present time.
The Obelisk of Theodosius in what is left of the Hippodrome.Theodosius the Great, who in 390 brought an obelisk from Egypt and erected it inside the racing track. Carved from pink granite, it was originally erected at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor during the reign of Thutmose III in about 1490 BC. Theodosius had the obelisk cut into three pieces and brought to Constantinople.
Computer recreations by Byzantium 1200 of the obelisk and the Hippodrome as it may have looked in the year 1200.
The praetorian prefect at that time was John the Cappadocian, and Tribunianus, a Pamphylian by birth, was counsellor to the emperor; this person the Romans call "quaestor." One of these two men, John, was entirely without the advantages of a liberal education; for he learned nothing while attending the elementary school except his letters, and these, too, poorly enough; but by his natural ability he became the most powerful man of whom we know. For he was most capable in deciding upon what was needful and in finding a solution for difficulties. But he became the basest of all men and employed his natural power to further his low designs; neither consideration for God nor any shame before man entered into his mind, but to destroy the lives of many men for the sake of gain and to wreck whole cities was his constant concern.
So within a short time indeed he had acquired vast sums of money, and he flung himself completely into the sordid life of a drunken scoundrel; for up to the time of lunch each day he would plunder the property of his subjects, and for the rest of the day occupy himself with drinking and with wanton deeds of lust. And he was utterly unable to control himself, for he ate food until he vomited, and he was always ready to steal money and more ready to bring it out and spend it. Such a man then was John.
Tribunianus, on the other hand, both possessed natural ability and in educational attainments was inferior to none of his contemporaries; but he was extraordinarily fond of the pursuit of money and always ready to sell justice for gain; therefore every day, as a rule, he was repealing some laws and proposing others, selling off to those who requested it either favour according to their need.
Now as long as the people were waging this war with each other in behalf of the names of the colours, no attention was paid to the offences of these men against the constitution; but when the factions came to a mutual understanding, as has been said, and so began the sedition, then openly throughout the whole city they began to abuse the two and went about seeking them to kill. Accordingly the emperor, wishing to win the people to his side, instantly dismissed both these men from office.
And Phocas, a patrician, he appointed praetorian prefect, a man of the greatest discretion and fitted by nature to be a guardian of justice; Basilides he commanded to fill the office of quaestor, a man known among the patricians for his agreeable qualities and a notable besides. However, the insurrection continued no less violently under them.
Now on the fifth day of the insurrection in the late afternoon the Emperor Justinian gave orders to Hypatius and Pompeius, nephews of the late emperor, Anastasius, to go home as quickly as possible, either because he suspected that some plot was being matured by them against his own person, or, it may be, because destiny brought them to this. But they feared that the people would force them to the throne (as in fact fell out), and they said that they would be doing wrong if they should abandon their sovereign when he found himself in such danger.
When the Emperor Justinian heard this, he inclined still more to his suspicion, and he bade them quit the palace instantly. Thus, then, these two men betook themselves to their homes, and, as long as it was night, they remained there quietly.
But on the following day at sunrise it became known to the people that both men had quit the palace where they had been staying. So the whole population ran to them, and they declared Hypatius emperor and prepared to lead him to the market-place to assume the power. But the wife of Hypatius, Mary, a discreet woman, who had the greatest reputation for prudence, laid hold of her husband and would not let go, but cried out with loud lamentation and with entreaties to all her kinsmen that the people were leading him on the road to death.
But since the throng overpowered her, she unwillingly released her husband, and he by no will of his own came to the Forum of Constantine, where they summoned him to the throne; then since they had neither diadem nor anything else with which it is customary for a king to be clothed, they placed a golden necklace upon his head and proclaimed him Emperor of the Romans.
By this time the members of the senate were assembling,—as many of them as had not been left in the emperor's residence,—and many expressed the opinion that they should go to the palace to fight. But Origenes, a man of the senate, came forward and spoke as follows:
"Fellow Romans, it is impossible that the situation which is upon us be solved in any way except by war. Now war and royal power are agreed to be the greatest of all things in the world. But when action involves great issues, it refuses to be brought to a successful conclusion by the brief crisis of a moment, but this is accomplished only by wisdom of thought and energy of action, which men display for a length of time. Therefore if we should go out against the enemy, our cause will hang in the balance, and we shall be taking a risk which will decide everything in a brief space of time; and, as regards the consequences of such action, we shall either fall down and worship Fortune or reproach her altogether. For those things whose issue is most quickly decided, fall, as a rule, under the sway of fortune. But if we handle the present situation more deliberately, not even if we wish shall we be able to take Justinian in the palace, but he will very speedily be thankful if he is allowed to flee; for authority which is ignored always loses its power, since its strength ebbs away with each day. Moreover we have other palaces, both Placillianae and the palace named from Helen, which this emperor should make his headquarters and from there he should carry on the war and attend to the ordering of all other matters in the best possible way." So spoke Origenes.
But the rest, as a crowd is accustomed to do, insisted more excitedly and thought that the present moment was opportune, and not least of all Hypatius (for it was fated that evil should befall him) bade them lead the way to the hippodrome. But some say that he came there purposely, being well-disposed toward the emperor.
Now the emperor and his court were deliberating as to whether it would be better for them if they remained or if they took to flight in the ships. And many opinions were expressed favouring either course.
And the Empress Theodora also spoke to the following effect: "As to the belief that a woman ought not to be daring among men or to assert herself boldly among those who are holding back from fear, I consider that the present crisis most certainly does not permit us to discuss whether the matter should be regarded in this or in some other way. For in the case of those whose interests have come into the greatest danger nothing else seems best except to settle the issue immediately before them in the best possible way. My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety. For while it is impossible for a man who has seen the light not also to die, for one who has been an emperor it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, here the boats. However consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. For as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud."
When the queen had spoken thus, all were filled with boldness, and, turning their thoughts towards resistance, they began to consider how they might be able to defend themselves if any hostile force should come against them. Now the soldiers as a body, including those who were stationed about the emperor's court, were neither well disposed to the emperor nor willing openly to take an active part in fighting, but were waiting for what the future would bring forth.
All the hopes of the emperor were centred upon Belisarius and Mundus, of whom the former, Belisarius, had recently returned from the Persian war bringing with him a following which was both powerful and imposing, and in particular he had a great number of spearmen and guards who had received their training in battles and the perils of warfare. Mundus had been appointed general of the Illyrians, and by mere chance had happened to come under summons to Byzantium on some necessary errand, bringing with him Erulian barbarians.
When Hypatius reached the hippodrome, he went up immediately to where the emperor is accustomed to take his place and seated himself on the royal throne from which the emperor was always accustomed to view the equestrian and athletic contests.
And from the palace Mundus went out through the gate which, from the circling descent, has been given the name of the Snail. Belisarius meanwhile began at first to go straight up toward Hypatius himself and the royal throne, and when he came to the adjoining structure where there has been a guard of soldiers from of old, he cried out to the soldiers commanding them to open the door for him as quickly as possible, in order that he might go against the tyrant. But since the soldiers had decided to support neither side, until one of them should be manifestly victorious, they pretended not to hear at all and thus put him off.
So Belisarius returned to the emperor and declared that the day was lost for them, for the soldiers who guarded the palace were rebelling against him. The emperor therefore commanded him to go to the so-called Bronze Gate and the propylaea there. So Belisarius, with difficulty and not without danger and great exertion, made his way over ground covered by ruins and half-burned buildings, and ascended to the stadium. And when he had reached the Blue Colonnade which is on the right of the emperor's throne, he purposed to go against Hypatius himself first; but since there was a small door there which had been closed and was guarded by the soldiers of Hypatius who were inside, he feared lest while he was struggling in the narrow space the populace should fall upon him, and after destroying both himself and all his followers, should proceed with less trouble and difficulty against the emperor.
Concluding, therefore, that he must go against the populace who had taken their stand in the hippodrome—a vast multitude crowding each other in great disorder—he drew his sword from its sheath and, commanding the others to do likewise, with a shout he advanced upon them at a run. But the populace, who were standing in a mass and not in order, at the sight of armoured soldiers who had a great reputation for bravery and experience in war, and seeing that they struck out with their swords unsparingly, beat a hasty retreat.
Then a great outcry arose, as was natural, and Mundus, who was standing not far away, was eager to join in the fight,—for he was a daring and energetic fellow—but he was at a loss as to what he should do under the circumstances; when, however, he observed that Belisarius was in the struggle, he straightway made a sally into the hippodrome through the entrance which they call the Gate of Death. Then indeed from both sides the partisans of Hypatius were assailed with might and main and destroyed.
When the rout had become complete and there had already been great slaughter of the populace, Boraedes and Justus, nephews of the Emperor Justinian, without anyone daring to lift a hand against them, dragged Hypatius down from the throne, and, leading him in, handed him over together with Pompeius to the emperor.
And there perished among the populace on that day more than thirty thousand. But the emperor commanded the two prisoners to be kept in severe confinement. Then, while Pompeius was weeping and uttering pitiable words (for the man was wholly inexperienced in such misfortunes), Hypatius reproached him at length and said that those who were about to die unjustly should not lament. For in the beginning they had been forced by the people against their will, and afterwards they had come to the hippodrome with no thought of harming the emperor.
And the soldiers killed both of them on the following day and threw their bodies into the sea. The emperor confiscated all their property for the public treasury, and also that of all the other members of the senate who had sided with them. Later, however, he restored to the children of Hypatius and Pompeius and to all others the titles which they had formerly held, and as much of their property as he had not happened to bestow upon his friends.
This was the end of the insurrection in Byzantium.
Chariot Race at the Hippodrome
Empress Theodora by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1887)
Theodora’s mother was probably an acrobat. She was certainly married to the man who held the position of bear-keeper to the Greens. When he died unexpectedly, leaving her with three young daughters, the mother was left destitute. Desperate, she hastily remarried and went with her infant children to the arena, where she begged the Greens to find a job for her new husband. They pointedly ignored her, but the Blues—sensing the opportunity to paint themselves as more magnanimous—found work for him.
Unsurprisingly, Theodora thereafter grew up to be a violent partisan of the Blues, and her unswerving support for the faction became a factor in Roman life after 527, when she was crowned as empress—not least because Justinian himself, before he became Emperor, had given 30 years of loud support to the same team.
I doubt that there was time during the madness of a battle to do more than the very basics of trying to keep men alive. But once the enemy retreated the skilled Roman Medical Corps attached to the army would swing into action.
(Greek Reporter) A proto-Byzantine-era skull which was discovered by anthropologists in the Paliokastro area on Thasos island shows signs of complicated surgery, according to a new Athens-Macedonian News Agency (AMNA) report.
The skull, which dates from the early Byzantine period — the fourth to the seventh century AD — bears traces of surgery that are “incredibly complex,” according to researcher Anagnostis Agelarakis, Ph.D., who teaches at Adeplhi University.
The discovery was made by an Adelphi University research team led by Agelarakis. A total of ten skeletons, of four women and six men, were found and studied. They are likely to be persons of high social status, based on the location and architecture of the burial site.
“According to their skeletal-anatomical features, both men and women lived physically demanding lives…The very serious trauma cases sustained by both males and females had been treated surgically or orthopedically by a very experienced physician/surgeon with great training in trauma care. We believe it to have been a military physician,” the report says.
In regards to the man’s skull, “even despite a grim prognosis, an extensive effort was given to this surgery for this male. So it’s likely that he was a very important individual to the population at Paliokastro.”
The report also notes that it is likely that the person had an infection that required surgery, while the other man, presumably an archer, appears to have died shortly after or during the doctor’s attempt to save him.
“The surgical operation is the most complex I have ever seen in my 40 years of working with anthropological materials,” Agelarakis said. “It is unbelievable that it was carried out, with the most complicated preparations for the intervention, and then the surgical operation itself which took place, of course, in a pre-antibiotic era.”
The findings can be found in detail in a new book, titled “Eastern Roman Mounted Archers and Extraordinary Medico-Surgical Interventions at Paliokastro in Thasos Island during the ProtoByzantine Period,” by Archaeopress, Access Archaeology.
Though not spoken of, when you have 700 hundred years of war with the Persian Empire it only makes sense that a line of fortifications was built on the Eastern Front.
So while surfing the net I found a 2013 article titled "Military Infrastructure in the Eastern Roman Provices." If you have trouble sleeping at night then articles like this are the cure. Still it brought forward some ignored information on a forgotten Roman Limes system in Armenia.
Rome's eastern defenses were remodeled from the 3rd century on to cope with the growing power of the Persian Empire under the Sassanid Dynasty.
The defensive system adapted to meet the terrain with fortified cities, fortresses, forts and fortified highland redoubts. All of these were supported by a series of Roman roads to speed the movement of troops.
Over time the Roman military focused more to the north in Armenia and the desert south was left to Christian Arab allied tribes.
Very little infrastructure remains - - - What exists is largely tiny amounts of rubble.
The fortifications served two functions: 1) They provided a barrier against Persian invasion and 2) bases for offensive Roman military action against Persia.
The System of Roman Limes
War with Persia was the one constant of the Roman Republic and Empire. The Roman-Persian Wars lasted nearly 700 years from 54BC to 628AD.
But notice in the map above there is a giant hole in the Armenia/Eastern Anatolia sector where a limes system of fortifications should be listed. An article I ran across on Roman Military Infrastructure helped fill in that gap of a missing limes system.
In an article I found on military infrastructure in the Eastern Provinces we see a Limes system of fortresses (in yellow) facing Persia supported by Roman roads to speed the movement of troops.
After the conquest of Mesopotamia by Septimius Severus in the last decade of the second century, Satala was still a front city, but the Armenian province across the Euphrates, the district known as Sophene, posed no direct military threat. However, occupation of this site remained vital, because Satala still was the main connection between the Black Sea, the river and Antioch near the Mediterranean in the south.
The border wars both larger and smaller continued on and on for centuries with little real change in the border.
Satala Fortress East Gate
Yes, I said the same thing, "That's a gate? How do they know?"
I guess when the Persians destroy a fortress they really destroy a fortress.
Satala shows us the vanished Armenian limes. and the endless money needed to keep the forts repaired.
The site was fortified again in 529 by the emperor Justinian. His historian Procopius writes:
"The city of Satala had been in a precarious state in ancient times. For it is situated not far from the land of the enemy and it also lies in a low-lying plain and is dominated by many hills which tower around it, and for this reason it stood in need of circuit-walls which would defy attack. Nevertheless, even though its surroundings were of such a nature as this, its defenses were in a perilous condition, having been carelessly constructed with bad workmanship in the beginning, and with the long passage of time the masonry had everywhere collapsed. But the Emperor tore all this down and built there a new circuit wall, so high that it seemed to overtop the hills around it, and of a thickness sufficient to ensure the safety of its towering mass. And he set up admirable outworks on all sides and so struck terror into the hearts of the enemy."
The fortress of Satala survived for almost a century after Procopius wrote, but was eventually captured and destroyed in 607/608 by the Sasanian King Khusrau II (r.590-628).
Roman fortresses (in yellow) on the Armenian eastern front up against the Persian Empire.
The Northern Most Limes Fortress
Ruins of the fortress Petra north of Armenia in Georgia. In the 6th century, under the EmperorJustinian I, it served as an important Eastern Roman outpost in the Caucasus and, due to its strategic location, became a battleground of the 541–562 Lazic War between Rome and Persia.
The name of Petra, literally, "rock" in Greek, was a reference to the rocky and precipitous coast where the city was built. Its location between the sea and the cliffs rendered the city inaccessible, except for a narrow and rocky stretch of level ground, which was defended by a defensive wall with two towers.
The Limes Arabicus was a desert frontier of the Roman Empire, in the province of Arabia Petraea. It ran -at its biggest extension- for about 1,500 km, from Northern Syria to Southern Palestine and northern Arabia, forming part of the wider Roman limes system. It had several forts and watchtowers.
The reason of this defensive "Limes" was to protect the Roman "Province of Arabia" from attacks of the barbarian tribes of the Arabian desert.
It is likely that Qasr Bashir was originally home to an auxiliary cavalry unit, charged with defending the Roman frontier and keeping the peace in the surrounding area.
The soldiers at a limes were referred to as limitanei. Compared to the regular Roman military, they tended to be more likely to be of local descent, be paid less, and be overall less prestigious. However, they were not expected to win large scales wars, but rather deter small-to-medium-sized raiders.
Selected forts are highlighted in yellow.
Until the Persian invasion of the 600s this southern sector of Rome's Eastern Front was largely a quiet backwater. But even so money was spent to fortify the area and man the sector with troops.
Troops were progressively withdrawn from the Limes Arabicus in the first half of the 6th century and replaced with native Arab foederati, chiefly the Ghassanids.After the Muslim Arab conquest, the Limes Arabicus was largely left to disappear, though some fortifications were used and reinforced in the following centuries.
Here we are at Part IX of the titanic Battle for the Middle East.
Where Eastern Roman military history is addressed at all there are casual references to the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 AD. "Historians" effectively say the Arabs just magically showed up one day at Yarmouk and defeated a weak Roman Empire.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This series details a Roman-Muslim slug fest taking place over many years and many battles over a huge geographical area.
In 629 AD the Roman Empire was enjoying a much deserved period of peace after a brutal 26 year long war of all wars with the Persian Empire. Finally there was peace. No one in Constantinople had any idea that a fresh invasion from the southern deserts would happen in a matter of months.
Part I - In Part I of this series we saw the first military contact between Romans and Muslim Arabs at the Battle of Mota (Mu'tah) in the Roman province ofPalaestina Salutaris. In 629 AD a force of Romans and their Christian Arab allies mauled the invading Muslim army forcing them to return to Medina.
Part II - In Part II we saw the Muslims turn their attention to a weakened Persian Empire. Muslims defeated the Persians in a series of battles. In 634 the Muslims marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz. Firaz was at the outermost edge of the Persian Empire but it still contained an undefeated Persian garrison. There the Persians joined forces with the local Roman garrison and with Christian Arabs to take on the invaders. They were soundly defeated. Part III - In Part III we have the Emperor Heraclius organizing the defense of Palaestina Salutaris. Muslims made a wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless deserts to threaten Damascus.
The Romans held their own in eastern Syria against this attack and effectively defeated the Arabs at the Battle of Marj Rahit in 634. They drove the Arabs south away from Damascus. The Romans had also dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications in eastern Palestine and held their positions against Arab attacks.
But the Romans were defeated in southwest Palestine allowing Muslim forces to fan out reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.
Part IV - Battle of Ajnadayn 634. The Romans were dug in at Daraa in Syria and were successfully holding off the invading Muslim army. Emperor Heraclius sent a second army down coastal Palestine with the support of the Roman Navy. The goal was to defeat the smaller Muslim army at Beersheeba and then block the lines of communications to Mecca of the Muslim army at Daraa forcing them to retreat back to Arabia.
Part V - 1st Battle of Yarmouk (634 AD). In a huge multi-day battle the Roman Army is pushed out of their prepared defenses at the Daraa Gap. The Romans began to withdraw and made an orderly retreat north to Damascus and other walled cities.
The door to Syria had been forced open.
Part VI - After a siege lasting for six months Damascus falls to Muslim invaders who lacked any siege equipment. Traitor Christians inside the city opened the gates and allowed the Muslim troops to enter the city. Damascus was sort of a great victory for the Arabs. After months of a siege the Muslims could not carry the city's defenses and needed Christian traitors within the walls to win the day.
The Muslims may have opened the door to Syria, but victory was a long way off. There were Roman armies operating all over Palestine and Syria and holding walled cities such as Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tyre and Tripoli. The coastal cities could also be resupplied and reinforced by the Roman Navy.
Part VII - After the fall of Damascus, Syria Muslim forces started their move north. Escaping Roman civilians and soldiers were massacred at Maraj-al-Debj in September of 635. Many survivors were sold into slavery by the Muslims.
The Muslims went on to lay Siege to the city of Homs from December 635 to March 636. After the fall of Homs the Muslims set out once again for the north, intending to take the whole of Northern Syria this time, including Aleppo and Antioch. They went past Hama and arrived at Shaizar.
There they stopped as they faced a new Roman army raised by the Emperor Heraclius. Part VIII - In the early months of 636 the Empire stuck back in Syria. Simply, the Muslims abandoned all their gains and ran south as fast as possible. The great walled cities of Damascus and Homs captured with months of siege warfare and much blood were abandoned without a single arrow fired. The story was the same for all the other towns and villages. The Muslims ran. The Muslims fell back to the Daraa Gap where in the 1st Battle of Yarmouk (September 634) they had forced the Romans to leave their prepared fortifications. The Muslims passed through the Gap with the Romans hot on their heals. The Romans re-occupied their old defenses and slammed shut the Door to Syria.
Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb, KCB, CMG, DSO, OBE, MC
Explaining the 2nd Battle of Yarmouk
The fact that "historians" have no clue that there was ever a 1st Battle of Yarmouk two years earlier tells you a lot about their true knowledge of events.
As far as I am concerned Glubb Pasha's 1964 book The Great Arab Conquests is the Holy Grail on the Arab invasions. Glubb was fluent in Arabic and able to read the original documents. In addition he was commander of the British Arab Legion and personally campaigned on the very ground the Romans and Muslims fought over. Because the "history" of the early invasions is a jumbled mess I have been using Glubb Pasha's dates and timeline for events.
Glubb Pasha: "The records of the fighting which occurred between the Arabs and the Byzantine army in Syria are extremely confusing. Our sources are virtually restricted to the Arab historians who wrote more more than a century after the events . . . and who themselves were obviously ignorant of, or indifferent to, the course of the military operations. It was purely by accident that I discovered what appears to me now to be the key to the comprehension of the Arab campaigns in Syria, namely the narrow defile between the Yarmouk River and the Jebel Druze at Derra. . . .
In July 1941 . . . it was feared that the German army, which had seized the Balkans, would attack Turkey and move southwards through Syria and Palestine to Egypt. . . . It was important to discover all the available narrow defiles, where armoured mechanized forces would be at a disadvantage . . . . to hold up German mechanized columns. . . . I myself was employed to examine the area round Deraa.
The Yarmouk River . . . . has cut a deep gorge down which it falls into the Jordan valley . . . . This gorge begins near the town of Deraa. East and northeast of Deraa lies a large group of mountains formed by extinct volcanoes, all the slopes of which are strewn with large black boulders of lava. In place, movement in this area is difficult even to men on foot, while horses and camels are almost immobilized and wheels entirely so. The lava-strewn spurs run down into the plain very nearly to the point at which the Yarmouk becomes an impassable gorge. . . . In 1941, we named this narrow defile the "Deraa gap". We decided to dig an anti-tank ditch across it and to build an entrenched position for an infantry brigade to close the gap.
All the European historians of the Muslim conquest of Syria complain of the vagueness and inaccuracy of the Arab records. Again and again the rival armies are reported to be facing one another on the Yarmouk. Then they disperse again without result. Were there several encounters on the Yarmouk, and why does that name keep recurring? It was only when I myself reconnoitered the area for a military purpose that, all of a sudden, the veil fell, as it were, from my eyes. Useful as this defile would be to prevent a German attack from the north, it was obvious to me that it would be of even great importance in resisting an army coming up from the south. In so far as invasion from Arabia was concerned, the Deraa gap would be the Thermopylae of Syria.
In 1941, the Germans were invincible at their lightning mechanical warfare. . . . The only way to oppose these mechanized-avalanche tactics was to fight in close country, in mountains, in passes in narrow gaps . . . . The Muslims were extremely light and mobile, and their tactics consisted of a wild charge . . . retreat and turning movements, cutting communications and supplies. In the open plain, the heavy slow-moving Byzantine troops could not compete with this mobility. But the Arabs could not fight a close-order infantry battle, by push of pike as it were. They had not sufficient body-armour, they were not trained to fight in close, well disciplined ranks. More over they had no heavy support weapons. A cloud of arrows was their only covering fire. Thus they easily overran the deserts and plains of Trans-Jordan and southern Palestine but were afraid of the mountains and defiles. Dreading the Arab blitzkrieg, the Byzantine army in 634 (the 1st Battle of Yarmouk), like the British army in 1941, established an entrenched camp near Deraa in the gap between the Yarmouk's gorge and the lava beds. The Arabs would sometimes skirmish in front of this camp and sometime withdraw, but their lack of military science made it difficult for them to assault it. Khalid's operations round Palmyra and Damascus would thus have the object of persuading the Byzantines to withdraw from Deraa, a result, however, which they failed to achieve."
The fact that "historians" have no clue that there was ever a 1st Battle of Yarmouk two years earlier tells you a lot about their true knowledge of events.
The prepared, fortified Roman positions in the Daraa Gap were protected on the left by the deep gorges created by the Yarmouk River above and on the right by the lava mountains of Jebel Hauran.
Roman Victory in Syria
In 636 the Emperor Heraclius assembled a large army to retake Syria from Muslim Control.
We may not know the exact size or makeup of the Roman Army. All we can do is judge the reaction of the Muslim forces facing them.
Simply, the Muslims abandoned all their gains and ran south as fast as possible.
The great walled cities of Damascus and Homs captured with months of siege warfare and much blood were abandoned without a single arrow fired. The story was the same for all the other towns and villages. The Muslims ran through the Daraa Gap and out into the desert beyond.
The Roman army moved in and re-occupied their old defenses slamming shut the Door to Syria. Heraclius' policy was to stonewall and gain time to build up his forces to liberate Palestine..
The 2nd Battle of Yarmouk
The Yarmouk Defences
This is one of the greatest and most important battles in history, and yet we know next to nothing about events.
The Roman Army started their march south from Antioch in March or April of 636. The Muslims ran as fast as possible never giving battle. The Romans rapidly recaptured Syria and may have reoccupied their Daraa Gap defences around May or June.
As you can see from General Glubb's map above the Daraa Gap was not narrow. The Romans had to defend a front that was 15 miles wide. Not an easy task for any army.
So what were the "prepared defences" that Gen. Glubb spoke of? We can only guess.
Obviously there is no permanent 15 mile long Hadrian's Wall. There was no need. For centuries the enemy of Rome in the east was the Persian Empire not the Arabs so there was no need for major defences facing south.
So when the Muslims invaded the province ofPalaestina Salutarisin 634 I believe the Emperor Heraclius ordered the erection of a string of the traditional fortified earthen Roman marching camps to help block the Daraa Gap. Earthen because I doubt any lumber was easily available to strengthen the walls, though the army may have brought some with them.
The Roman infantry would man the strong points and the cavalry units would patrol the gaps between the forts. Any Muslims pushing through between the forts would have Roman infantry behind them and could be caught in a vice of infantry and cavalry.
So the Roman line was anchored on the Yarmouk River on their right and the Lava fields on their left with forts and cavalry holding the center.
View of the remains of the Roman base camp when the 10th Roman Legion laid siege to Masada. With a lack of trees in the desert it is likely that the Romans erected a series of earthen forts in the Daraa Gap to block the Muslims.
Troop numbers are all over the map and no one can really know the true numbers.
Muslim forces may have numbered between 15,000 and 40,000. I doubt the higher number based on the difficulty in supplying a large force in the desert. I select 25,000 because . . . . well, why not? It's as good a number as any and looks practical.
The Muslim army was commanded by Khalid ibn al-Walid.Khalid organized the army into 36 infantry regiments and four cavalry regiments, with his cavalry elite, the mobile guard, held in reserve.
The exact size and composition of the Roman Army and its units in the Yarmouk campaign is a matter of considerable debate due to the scantness and ambiguous nature of the primary sources.
A typical Eastern Empire field army often numbered 15,000 to 20,000 men. It is possible that this being a major effort to recapture Syria and Palestine then all stops might have been pulled out. I would put my guess at an army of 30,000 plus.
The Emperor appointed Theodore Trithyrius as perhaps Commander-in-Chief in the newly raised army. Trithyrius was a Greek Christian and Roman Treasurer working for Emperor Heraclius and extremely loyal to the Emperor himself. He enjoyed supremacy under his title of sacellarius, usually appointed to the state treasurer.
Many Imperial regiments had been destroyed or badly mauled in recent campaigns. So the Emperor looked east to Armenia for the bulk of his troops. With the Persians defeated Armenia would have been a quiet front well able to spare frontier troops for Syria.
This does not mean the Armenians were mercenaries. Far from it. While some Armenians may have signed on just for this campaign the history of Armenian Legions in the Roman Army goes back centuries. It is possible many of the Armenian troops were trained professionals or maybe partly trained militia that were called into service.
The units in the other one-third of the army varied. Roman ally Jabalah ibn al-Aiham, King of the Ghassanid Arabs, commanded an exclusively Christian Arab force. Other army contingents consisted of Slavs, Franks andGeorgians. Buccinator, a Slavic prince, commanded the Slavs.
Byzantine sources mention Niketas the Persian, son of the Persian general Shahrbaraz, among the commanders. With Persia and Rome allied against the Muslims did Niketas bring with him a contingent of Persian troops? or did he command Romans? We do not know. Perhaps two-thirds of the new army were Armenians and Christian Arabs.
These different units coming together under one commander would not be new for the Romans. Foreign troops during the late Roman period were known as the Foederati ("allies") in Latin and often supplemented the regular army units.
The Commander-in-Chief in the army may have been Trithyrius. But Trithyrius was basically a bean counter from the Treasury. His level of military experience is unknown. Vahan, an Armenian and the former garrison commander of Emesa, was in command of his Armenian units and may have had some command over the non-Armenian troops. . . . or perhaps command was partly shared with a somewhat joint council of the leaders of the different units.
Colorized 1898 photo of a Bedouin warrior on horseback carrying a traditional Az-Zayah hunting spear. The Romans may have face soldiers much like this man. (dailymail.co.uk)
Under their king the mobile and nimble Christian Arabs acted as an ideal cavalry screen in front of the main Roman Army and pushed the Muslims almost totally out of Syria.
With the Muslims pushed out beyond the Daraa Gap the main Roman Army reocuppied the fortifications they had abandoned 18 months earlier. No doubt a lot of work was needed to strengthen the old strong points.
This second deadlock at the Daraa Gap lasted about four months.
A four month standoff between armies is a far cry from the incorrect single "Battle of Yarmouk" that historians talk about.
The Muslims tried to lure the Romans out of their prepared positions to no avail. On the other hand the Muslims had no desire to directly attack the Roman line, and that showed their weakness.
The Muslims tried to break the deadlock by working around the flanks of the Romans. Small units of Muslims infiltrated to the west over the Yarmouk River and to the east over the lava beds. These small units could threaten Roman supply lines with attacks and even pick off small units of Roman foragers.
More important there was an atmosphere of mistrust between the Romans, Greeks, Armenians and Arabs. Command lines were not clear and there appears to have been a struggle for power between Trithyrius and the Armenia commander Vahan. The effect of the feud was a decrease in coordination and planning.
Some say the Romans should have attacked the Muslims at once when they arrived. That action had seen the defeat of other Roman forces in the past. The Emperor's plan was to hold firm at Yarmouk. But while the Romans held firm Muslim reinforcements from Arabia were coming.
With the added troops the Muslims became increasingly aggressive. It is confusing but it appears that the Arabs came close to surrounding the Romans - - - or at least they had cut the Roman's communications on three sides.
A massive desert dust storm blinded the Roman Army reducing visibility to near zero.
Some "Historians" claim the final conflict was a multi-day battle. General Glubb says it was all over in one day.
On August 20, 636 there was a massive sand storm. A hot wind was blowing clouds of sand and dust directly into the faces of the Romans.
Gen. Glubb: "Few experiences are more unpleasant than a really hot dust-storm in the desert. Tents are blown down, cooking is impossible, food and drink are full of grit and the blinding sand stings the face and closes the eyes. Visibility may be reduced to a few yards. To face such a wind is impossible. There is nothing to be done but to crouch on the ground, and wait miserably for the storm to blow itself out."
The Arab attack was planned. Glubb believes the dust storm started the day before on the 19th. Seeing an opportunity the Arabs appear to have early on seized the bridge over the Wadi al Ruqqad which was on the Roman's lines of communications.
Gen. Glubb: "While even bedouin scarcely enjoys a sand storm, it was to them a normal experience. Moreover the direction of the gale was from them to the enemy. Their vision was hampered, but with the wind behind them, they could attack with their eyes open, suffering little inconvenience. Such circumstances would obviously produce a soldier's battle. An army accustomed to fight in ranks by word of command would, under these conditions, be almost helpless."
This was an impossible situation for any army. The Muslims could not break the Roman line - the sand storm did it for them.
Gen. Glubb: "Then a wild horde of screaming Arabs, suddenly appearing like ghosts through the driving sand, poured across the Byzantine fortifications. If the dust-storm was really thick, it is unlikely that the imperial army succeeded in giving battle at all. With the bridge in their rear already seized by the Muslims, an immense slaughter resulted, Theodorus himself being killed in the melee. By the next morning, the Byzantine army, which Heraclius had spent a year of immense exertion to collect, had entirely ceased to exist. There was no withdrawal, no rearguard action, no nucleus of survivors. There was nothing left."
Roman Syria and Palestine still existed. Roman garrisons still controlled Jerusalem and Damascus. The navy supported the garrisons holding out in coastal towns such as Carsarea, Trye, Sidon and Tripoli.
The Muslims had failed to break the Roman defensive line. One has to speculate what would history have been like if there had been no sand storm. With no storm the army at Daraa might have withdrawn to Damascus and reorganized to fight another day. The Muslims could have been stopped there while the Roman Navy supported the coastal cities. Interesting thoughts to ponder.
When the aged Emperor Heraclius in Antioch heard about Yarmouk he knew the decision was irrevocable. He would have tried to reconquer the province if he had the resources but now had neither the men nor the money to defend the province any more.
Heraclius took to the sea on a ship to Constantinople in the night. Tradition says as his ship set sail he bade a last farewell to Syria: Farewell, a long farewell to Syria, my fair province. Thou art an infidel's (enemy's) now. Peace be with you, O Syria—what a beautiful land you will be for the enemy. Heraclius abandoned Syria with the holy relic of the True Cross, which was, along with other relics held at Jerusalem, secretly boarded on ship by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, just to protect it from the invading Arabs. After abandoning Syria, he began to concentrate on his remaining forces for the defense of Anatolia,Egypt and Byzantine Armenia . Heraclius created a buffer zone in central Anatolia by ordering all the forts east of Tarsus to be evacuated.
But these stories are for Part X.
Limitaneistatic frontier guard troops existed through the Persian Wars and the Arab Conquest.
Late Roman Empire Cavalry The basic look of the Roman cavalry during the Arab invasions would have not changed all that much. The heavy Cataphract units would have more armor and other units would have less for better mobility. The armored cavalry would act as the mailed fist of any Roman field army. (Roman Empire.net)